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Friday, October 10, 2003

Here's a commentary I wrote recently on why Iowa should adopt a recall process.

Iowa Should Join the Recall Circus

California was the laughing stock of America for the past two months as child-actor Gary Coleman and pornographer Larry Flynt vied to replace Gray Davis as Governor. But voters in the Golden State have had the last laugh, conducting a sober statewide discussion and making the recall process work reasonably well.

It was hard for outsiders to take the recall seriously, but Californians did just that. Candidates debated issues from many points of view. With diverse choices, voters turned out to the polls in higher numbers than during the last statewide election.

Some political pundits are now worried that this populist “circus” could spread like prairie-fire to other states. They complain that California’s recall process doesn’t require any criminal action or misconduct. A California Governor can be recalled if a majority of voters don’t want him or her in office, whatever the reason. But can anyone who believes in democracy really think that citizens should be subjected to an administration that a majority of them oppose, whether or not there happens to be a regularly scheduled election?

Californians reacted to a political regime that left them few choices. Wealthy special interests dominate who wins the primaries of both major parties, leaving voters to choose between the lesser of two evils. Politicians have refused to pass campaign finance reform, so citizens responded with the one tool left.

California is the world’s fifth largest economy. Our Silicon Valley created the internet revolution, our Hollywood entertains the world, and our Central Valley farms feed America. We have our problems, as does Iowa, but on the whole we’ll come out of this recall a stronger democracy.

So, rather than making California the butt of your jokes, Iowa would do well to establish the recall process itself. Whether or not recalls succeed, they provide as a useful reminder to elected officials that they serve at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around.

But, there are several lessons Iowa could learn from California’s experience.

First, big money played too large a role. The recall would not have qualified without $2 million from one man to gather 900,000 signatures. But, this does not diminish the 700,000 signatures that recall organizers gathered through volunteer efforts. Indian tribes and corporations also distorted the recall campaign with a flood of campaign spending. A sound process should have low enough signature thresholds to be met by volunteers and set low limits on contributions and spending for and against the recall and by each replacement candidate.

Second, it was too easy for Arnold Schwartzenegger to skip debates. Participation in debates should be a mandatory part of the ballot access process, just as gathering signatures and paying filing fees are. Candidates who won’t defend their positions in public debate should be free to run, but they should do so as write in candidates.

Third, use run-off elections. California successfully narrowed its 135 candidates to 4 major contenders as many serious candidates dropped out of the race after polls showed they had no real chance of winning. The ultraconservative Tom McClintock and Green candidate Peter Cameo stayed in, and they did not wind up spoiling the election. When candidates drop out, their supporters can’t demonstrate their preferences on election day. Better to let all candidates stay in the race, but use a runoff to choose between the top two candidates. Better yet would be to use Instant Runoff Voting, which accomplished the same thing in one election by letting voters rank candidates in order of their preference.

And while Iowa is discussing the recall process, consider adopting the citizens initiative and referendum while you’re at it. It will drive the political elites nuts, but then isn’t that what democracy is all about in the first place?

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